As modern leaders, we often are running too fast to notice that what we mean is not aligned with what we say. A lack of thoughtfulness with regard to communication creates a gap between what we intend to communicate and what is actually heard by the recipient of our communications.
I spoke with a senior executive of an organization recently who shared his company’s leadership philosophy: Hire slowly, fire quickly, and focus on the top three metrics. From the leadership perspective, they are proud of the “hire slowly” part, because it suggests that if you take greater care with hiring, you end up having to fire people less often. But we learned that the emphasis for the folks two levels down was on the “fire quickly” part, and they lived in steady fear of being unexpectedly canned. It created a culture of blame and suspicion, rather than gaining the hearts and minds of their workforce.
In another situation, an executive meant to communicate to a team member how much she valued his work when she told him that she had planned to add him to a special projects team, but in the end was unable to. Rather than feeling valued, he felt diminished by his belief that she could have done more to make that opportunity happen for him.
When we as leaders say things to our employees, it’s important to hear those messages from their vantage point. Put yourself in the shoes of a new hire, an employee with 1, 5, 10 years of service, and imagine, “How would I interpret that message?” Make the time, when the message is critical, to test the message with a small group and ask for feedback. In a small group or one-on-one setting, simply asking the question, “What message did you hear when I said this?” or asking for feedback and concerns can open up an opportunity to clarify miscommunication. Ask them directly if they are receiving the words in the way you are sending it.
As a leader moving so fast that you can only hope your words are being received properly, a healthy habit is to slow down and watch body language and facial expressions as you deliver a message, to get some idea if you are communicating accurately. If you are delivering good news, but your employee’s face appears blank or disappointed, that could be a red flag. Another good practice is to maintain an open communication policy where feedback is encouraged and that you expect to receive feedback regularly. No one communicates perfectly all of the time, but if you become the kind of leader that people know they can talk to, it’s likely you’ll have people offer the kind of feedback that can improve communication.